President Joe Biden arrived in Texas Friday on a trip designed to highlight the region’s recovery after a deadly winter storm knocked out power in most of the state. But while the winter storm crisis may be fading into the rearview mirror, the battle to define its political meaning is just beginning.
The Biden Administration has signaled that once its COVID relief legislation passes Congress, it plans to push for a massive stimulus package that would put people to work rebuilding American infrastructure designed to combat climate change. The Texas disaster has quickly become a focal point of the debate over that plan. For the past 10 days, dueling interests have duked it out over the significance of the Texas blackouts, with Democrats saying they underscored the need to adapt our infrastructure to climate change and many Republicans claiming—falsely—that the disaster shows the pitfalls of renewable energy.
It’s a familiar exchange that has been repeated for years on Capitol Hill and across the country. In a few weeks, it may come to a head as Congress considers what could become the country’s most consequential piece of climate change legislation ever enacted. And the events in Texas have changed the political stakes of that debate. The disastrous effects of the winter storm have made false talking points around climate change increasingly difficult to maintain, pushing some Republicans to reckon with the need for improved energy infrastructure along the lines Biden may propose.
“The challenge for Republicans is that when you are sitting in your home in suburban Houston or in Austin, and you’re without electricity and heat for many days, I don’t think that you really care whether or not it’s the fault of one power generation source or another,” says Jeff Navin, a former chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Energy who is now a partner at government affairs firm Boundary Stone Partners. “I think you want your elected officials and your politicians to fix the problem.”
In any discussion of the politics of energy and climate, it’s helpful to start with the truth. The reality of the Texas power outage—which brought rolling blackouts to millions of Texans last week—is that all fuel types failed to some degree because the state’s energy infrastructure had not been properly adapted for winter. Wind turbines froze and instruments at nuclear and coal-fired power plants iced over, shutting them down. Most significantly, the state’s natural gas infrastructure couldn’t stand the extreme cold: wells froze and pumps that relied on electricity shut down. All of these problems could have been avoided if the infrastructure had been properly prepared for winter weather.
The bigger problem, experts say, is the system-level failure of the electric grid. Operators of the grid work constantly to anticipate challenges and ensure that electricity generation matches demand, and a wide array of fixes could have prevented the catastrophe—from the obvious moves like preparing infrastructure for winter, to more local generation and storage capacity. “We need to to recognize this as an energy systems challenge that goes beyond any one component,” says Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University in Houston.
Before the Texas disaster abated, politicians had already drawn battle lines in the messaging war over Biden’s coming infrastructure package. The details of the proposal are still in the works—and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has rejected calls to talk about the specifics until the COVID relief bill has passed Congress—but the connection to the Texas disaster is clear. Observers expect Biden’s infrastructure legislation to include many of the same measures as he recommended on the campaign trail when he proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure package that focused in large part on infrastructure designed to address climate change, including investments in upgrading the electric grid with new transmissions lines and energy storage.
Lawmakers will inevitably debate about the specifics of which technologies and improvements the legislation should support, but once the Texas storm hit, it didn’t take long for the conversation to move from fact-based discussion to political posturing. Texas Governor Greg Abbott blamed the outage on wind power and told conservative political commentator Sean Hannity that the event “shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” referring to the framework for climate policy focused on a rapid move away from fossil fuels coupled with spending on social measures advocated by many progressives. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who also served as President Donald Trump’s energy secretary, suggested that if Biden succeeded in passing a massive climate-focused infrastructure bill, “we’ll have more events like we’ve had in Texas all across the country.” Steve Daines, a Republican Senator from Montana, tweeted that “this is a perfect example of the need for reliable energy sources like natural gas & coal.”
But for many others, Democrats and Republicans alike, the Green New Deal talking points aren’t likely to move the needle given the facts—and the widespread rejection of falsehoods by experts and the media. Democrats have used the crisis to underscore the need to adapt to the effects of climate change. And many Republicans—including influential Republican Senators like Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Ted Cruz—have rejected criticism of wind energy in recent weeks. “There are some who have quickly fallen into political talking points, blaming the Green New Deal, and saying the fault is entirely that of wind and solar, and there are others blaming natural gas and coal and asserting wind and solar bore none of the responsibility,” Cruz told the Washington Examiner. “The truth is somewhere in the middle.”
A number of hurdles remain to pass a comprehensive climate-focused infrastructure package. Democrats likely cannot afford to lose votes in the evenly-divided Senate. And even the many Republicans who have historically supported renewable energy may balk at a steep multi-trillion dollar price tag. But, backers say, the disaster in Texas, which will cost tens of billions of dollars, makes it clear that there are costs to not investing, too.
“If there is a silver lining to the tragic events in Texas,” says Heather Zichal, CEO of the American Clean Power Association, “it’s that it helps underscore and build political momentum on both sides of the aisle to advance the kind of grid improvements that we believe we need.”
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